Major announcements about Pennsylvania’s fight to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) were made at a news conference on June 7 at Pennsylvania Game Commission headquarters in Harrisburg. CWD testing results were released, new lines were drawn for some disease management areas, and a faster CWD testing turnaround time was promised.
For the third year in a row, the total number of free-ranging deer testing positive for CWD in Pennsylvania has doubled. Figures released by the Pennsylvania Game Commission show that 123 new cases of CWD were discovered in 2018, bringing the total to 250 free-ranging deer that tested positive since the disease was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2012. Of these 250 CWD-positive deer, 122 came from Bedford County, 66 from adjacent Fulton County and 41 from Blair County. This equals 229 — 91 percent of the total — all from the same area of the state. Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans discussed last winter’s botched attempt at using sharpshooters for targeted removal of deer in this area. “We had a large commitment with a research project to help us and others across the country learn more about CWD and we wanted to reduce the number of deer in this area,” Burhans said. “We received a lot of pushback last winter and we were not able to do this.
“Our agency is made up of hunters and hunters are not our enemies,” he stated. “If CWD rates increase in Pennsylvania, it is because we don’t have the support of our hunters. Hunters are our most important tool to control CWD and we can’t do it without their support.” According to Commission CWD Communications Specialist Courtney Colley, Disease Management Area 2 will be expanded by over 2,000 square miles due to new cases in previously unreported areas. It will include all or parts of 12 counties, including Adams, Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Cumberland, Fulton, Franklin, Huntingdon, Juniata, Perry, Snyder and Westmoreland. The total area of DMA 2 will now encompass over 6,700 square miles.
“We have special concern about two of the new cases – one in Perry and one in Juniata County,” Colley explained. “Both were adult deer and both were over 20 miles away from any other known CWD-positive deer. They most likely had been shedding CWD prions for months — increasing the likelihood that other deer in the area are probably infected.”
DMA 3 will also be expanded, but only by 200 square miles. This resulted from the discovery of a single captive deer with chronic wasting disease in Clearfield County. Since no new cases have appeared in the southeastern Pennsylvania’s DMA 4, its size will remain the same. “If you know the history of the DMAs, you know that DMA 1 was eliminated after five years with no free-ranging deer testing positive,” Colley said. “Hopefully, DMA 4 will follow DMA 1 and be eliminated within a few years.”
The major complaint of those harvesting a deer during the past two years in disease management areas has been the many months that it sometimes took to get test results. CWD Coordinator Jared Oister addressed this concern.
“We plan to dramatically increase the speed of hunters receiving test results from their harvested deer,” Oister commented. “Our goal is to have the lab-to-hunter results in less than two weeks. Adding the pickup time, hunters should have results in one to three weeks, as opposed to up to three months.”
According to Oister, this will be accomplished by using a quicker test and possibly enlisting colleges to assist with testing. In the past, deer testing CWD-positive with the first test were then tested again two more times. The new plan is for hunters to receive tentative results after the first test. Then, the additional tests would be used to verify the first test.
Faster results would be particularly beneficial for early archery hunters because, according to Oister, the hunter would be eligible for a replacement tag if their deer tested positive.
“One thing that should be corrected is the false idea that, if you take your deer to a cooperative processor within a DMA, it will automatically be tested. This is not true,” Colley added. “Only a sample are tested. If hunters want to be sure that their deer is tested, they should still drop the head off at one of the large, marked collection bins.”
Colley shared the results of studies that show serious declines in deer populations in Wisconsin and Wyoming once the prevalence of CWD reaches the 25 to 30 percent range.
“Although Pennsylvania has not yet experienced any serious declines of the deer population, if we do nothing in Bedford, Fulton and Blair counties, 10 to 15 years down the road, we will have a prevalence of over 25 percent and will possibly experience population declines.”
Executive Director Burhans stated what some people still do not grasp. “We will never eliminate chronic wasting disease and we will never stop its spread. We can only hope to slow the spread of the disease as much as possible and keep its prevalence low. Hunters are our best allies for accomplishing this and we need their support.”
Reminder — New 2019-2020 hunting licenses go on sale June 17. Many people purchase their new license well in advance of the fall hunting seasons so that they can apply for antlerless deer licenses (available July 8) and to be eligible for the elk license drawings (deadline July 31). The Game Commission finally came to its senses — the 2019-20 Hunting and Trapping Digest will be free this year, instead of costing and extra $6.00.
Mark Nale is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.